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Same charges, different campaign

Insurance commissioner's race features familiar issues

ATLANTA - For 12 years, Democrats have been attacking Georgia Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine for taking campaign contributions from executives working in the industry he oversees.

It hasn't worked yet, allowing the Republican from Gwinnett County to become the GOP's second-longest serving statewide elected official.

Only Public Service Commissioner Bobby Baker has more seniority than Oxendine, who first won the insurance post in 1994 and has fended off two Democratic challengers since.

This year, Oxendine's opponent is Guy Drexinger, 46, a lawyer and accountant from Marietta running on a pledge not to accept any donations from insurance companies, the managed care industry or their executives.

He said Oxendine has accepted $2 million from contributors associated with the insurance industry during his four campaigns for commissioner.

"We need to take insurance money out of the campaigns of those running for insurance commissioner,'' he said. "It's a conflict of interest.''

Drexinger, who is seeking public office for the first time, said he decided to run for insurance commissioner after hearing horror stories over and over from his legal and accounting clients about skyrocketing insurance premiums.

He said Georgia families are paying 25 percent more for auto insurance than families in North Carolina, Georgia businesses are charged 36 percent more for workers' compensation insurance than companies in Virginia and health insurance costs here are 15 percent higher than in Alabama.

"We've got to have somebody looking out for patients and people paying the premiums,'' Drexinger said. "John Oxendine is not doing that.''

But Oxendine said it's unfair to compare Georgia's auto insurance rates with those of other Southeastern states that have smaller populations and aren't dominated by a major urban area like metro Atlanta.

"Traffic congestion means a lot of traffic accidents,'' he said.

Oxendine said Georgia is the least expensive state for auto insurance among the nation's 10 most populous states. He said it's also the least expensive state for homeowner's insurance in the Southeast.

Oxendine, 44, said he has built a pro-consumer record, having recovered $150 million in unpaid claims and premium refunds since taking office, including $20 million last year.

He also pointed to customer service improvements he has brought to the insurance commissioner's office, including expanded hours, and to a statewide privately funded telemedicine network he helped create several years ago, which allows patients in the most rural corners of Georgia to be examined by specialists through video hookups.

More recently, Oxendine was tapped by his colleagues from other states to head a nationwide investigation of deceptive practices by insurance companies operating near military bases.

He said $70 million was recovered from the the first case, with four more under investigation.

"It's really a way to give back to those who are fighting for us,'' he said.

Drexinger carries some professional baggage into the race. He was suspended from practicing law for two months in 1999 and reprimanded by the accounting profession in 2000 for misconduct that had occurred in 1995.

In representing a legal client in the purchase of a grocery store, he failed to disclose information to a bank and to the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Drexinger was the first to bring the matter to the attention of the news media when he decided to run for insurance commissioner. He mailed documents pertaining to the incident to his hometown newspaper, the Marietta Daily Journal, last April, saying he couldn't credibly argue for a more open insurance commissioner's office if he wasn't open about his past mistakes.

While Oxendine has become a fixture in the insurance commissioner's race, it appeared for a time that he wouldn't seek a fourth term.

He announced two years ago that he would run instead for lieutenant governor this year. However, he soon dropped out of that race, citing discouraging poll numbers and financial support.